Lawmakers Pushing FEMA to Speed Up Aid for Colorado Plains

Colorado lawmakers are trying to put pressure on the federal government to speed up aid to ranchers and county governments digging out from back-to-back blizzards on the southeastern plains.

Sens. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Wayne Allard, R-Colo., both said Wednesday they were working with state and federal officials, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve been working with FEMA to try to push them as fast as we can,” Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. “What we’ve heard is that it’s a matter of paperwork.”

Allard, R-Colo., is trying to expand the disaster declarations to other counties pummeled by the recent storms, said his spokeswoman, Laura Condeluci. She said Allard is seeking waivers for counties that couldn’t supply all the information needed by federal agencies, as in Baca County where a snowfall total couldn’t be provided because the snow gauge was buried by snow.

The region received a foot of snow in the blizzard that hit before Christmas and another 3 to 4 feet in a second storm that followed a week later, said John Stulp, the Lamar rancher and farmer picked by Gov. Bill Ritter to head the agriculture department. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association estimates that between 8,000 and 15,000 cattle could end up dying, a loss of over $10 million.

FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said the agency still needs an official record of the snowfall before granting assistance.

“If we feel like we’ve reached a dead end (with snow gauges), we would consider what else we might be able to do to get an accurate count of the snow that has fallen in a county,” he said.

So far, the federal government has declared a disaster area in Otero County, allowing FEMA to reimburse it for the costs of hiring snowplows and helicopters to save lives but not for the loss of livestock. Any such help would come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and so far there has been no commitment, Stulp said.

Help was offered to ranchers who lost cattle following Hurricane Katrina but there isn’t any money in that fund now, said Stulp, who spent days cutting paths in snow with a dozer blade before arriving at the state Capitol last weekend.

Stulp said the FEMA aid would only help counties with 75 percent of the cost of their most expensive two days of operations.

DeFelice said other counties should continue to keep track of their costs and will be reimbursed if their proposals are approved.

The cattlemen’s association, which has been frustrated with the slow response from the government, said donations have been trickling in from other agriculture groups across the country, including the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association. Its members received help after Hurricane Katrina.

A donations box has also been set up at the National Western Stock Show.

State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said he and other plains lawmakers planned to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for the federal government to provide more aid to the region.

With ranchers and rescue workers working around the clock, state Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, said the federal government’s delay has been disheartening. Even when the paperwork does get completed, only paying for two days’ worth of expenses won’t be enough either, he said.

“We’ve got cattle falling over dead and we’ve got snowplows that we’ve hired from other parts of Colorado and somehow we’ve got to be able to pay these people,” Kester said.